Interview by Filep Motwary
The phone rings and film director Lisa Immordino Vreeland greets me with a crystal- clear voice filled with excitement. I wish to know more about her latest book and documentary, both focusing on Cecil Beaton, under the title Love, Cecil. They spotlight the depth of Beaton’s prolific career as a photographer and painter and his scope as a writer, costume designer and overall dreamer.
For no less than 25 years, Lisa Immordino Vreeland has been immersed in the world of fashion and art. Her first book was accompanied by her directorial debut of the documentary of the same name, on the subject of her grandmother-in-law, Diana
Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2012), winner of the Silver Hugo at the Chicago Film Festival and the fashion category for the Design of the Year Awards—otherwise known as the Oscars of design—at the Design Museum in London. The film Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict followed in 2015.
While Love, Cecil is taking the world by storm; Immordino Vreeland is now working on a film about writer Truman Capote. What is evident in her work is, of course, her ability to pick her subjects but, more importantly, the generous way she portrays them. The same can be said for her short-film series The Art of Style, portraying outstanding personalities at work.
An excellent storyteller, in each of her films Immordino Vreeland invites you to discover something you thought you knew but, in fact, didn’t.
FILEP MOTWARY: Where are you and what are you working on right now?
LISA IMMORDINO VREELAND: I am about to leave tomorrow for a trip to Bora Bora and although it was never on my list of places to visit, I am very excited about it. I am working on several things, commercial work as well, but I am preparing my next feature documentary, on Truman Capote.
FM: So it’s one after the other! But you are very picky with your subjects…
LIV: Yes! I am lucky that they even agree to do it, but let’s not forget that many of my subjects are no longer alive and I typically negotiate with estates or rights holders. I feel very fortunate to be able to make movies and more and more people are beginning to understand my work and perhaps see it in a different way. I am very much off the radar and always do my own thing; I am not part of the film world and I am not part of the fashion world. There is a storytelling aspect to my work, and I think it is not just fashion content that I deliver but there is something more to it.
FM: In the Diana Vreeland documentary, every time I watch Anna Sui explaining how ahead she was, Diana’s move from Harper’s Bazaar to Vogue and her transition to the futuristic 1960s, I get goosebumps! Every single time…
LIV: Oh, that’s very sweet… But let’s be honest, she was amazing. I never knew or met her—although I was in love with her grandson at the time. And although I was never mesmerised—I was not one of those people who were under her spell—eventually, I did fall under her spell years later when I was doing the book research and documentary work. This led me to a very high level of respect for what she represented and what she believed in. This happens to me when I do the research and get to know the characters. For example, Peggy Guggenheim didn’t have that level of passion that Mrs Vreeland had—I mean you can be passionate but then you also need to have other qualities.
Mrs Vreeland just embraced everything. The research process was a learning curve and frankly, everything I do is a learning curve. And it is truly wonderful that I am doing something that I can learn from.
FM: You didn’t idolise her in your film. On the contrary: the way you portrayed Mrs Vreeland allowed the audience to follow the timeline of her achievements and her vision through numerous aesthetic examples and how she actually formed the ways we perceive fashion today.
LIV: Yes, you are right. It is dangerous that anyone idolises their subjects but you fall in love with them and then out of love and then start all over again. With Mrs Vreeland, I never really fell out of love. It was more difficult to stay in love with Peggy Guggenheim. Now with Beaton, it is again different because I have always adored him. Even when he had his antisemitic moments, I still adored him. I feel like he sacrificed everything for creativity and that is something that I admire so much. Peggy was the one character who I wish had a bigger heart at times.
FM: When did you become aware of, and interested in, film and storytelling?
LIV: I was born in Milan, Italy and my parents were first-generation Americans from Italian and Spanish families who had come over to America and were both born in New York. My mother was of Spanish descent and my father was of Italian descent. Dad was a businessman and we were living in Milan. Growing up in Italy formed my thinking, the lifestyle, this curiosity I have of seeing things, being exposed to art from an early age and travelling. Going to La Scala as a child, for example, the access we had to such things had a great impact on my life as an adult. The fact that my family was so strongly bonded was, for me, a good base filled with security that enabled me to step out in life and be comfortable.
As a child, I remember being very calm and very much in my own world, very quiet and silent within myself; this is something I remember strongly from those days. I have no idea what this has to do with storytelling…!
An archaeologist is what I always wanted to be. It’s something that I used to say as a young child. I did not study archaeology at college and instead chose art history, which, in a way, is a study of people. Art has always been a big passion in my life and wherever I go, to any city, I always look around for art, as it feeds me, it helps me grow. Though strangely, after college I ended up working in fashion immediately.
To go to the next level after college, for my master’s in art history, I had to speak German and I had no interest in learning the language—I spoke fluent Italian and a little bit of French but, at that point,
I just didn’t want to take that extra step. I finished college early and ended up in New York where I got a job at Polo Ralph Lauren. I was literally an assistant or more like a secretary to one of the vice presidents for production. It was very much a men’s club there because these were the old offices.
There were a bunch of us there and many of us got our first job at Ralph Lauren—it was an incredible training ground for a lot of people in the industry. In the end, I think my energy was much more fashion than it was art history. Soon I ended up working for another company called Gruppo Girombelli and they had very popular collections: Byblos, Claude Montana who was designing Complice and Versace who was designing Genny. So, I was in the middle of this incredible showroom—the collections were really hot at the time. I was primarily working on Byblos selling and there I learned how to work in the fashion industry. I launched a collection with photographer Fabrizio Ferri called Industria and it was cool at the time. It was based out of a photo studio in New York called Industria Superstudio.
Two or three jobs followed, and I began to design my own collection after I realised I didn’t really fit into a certain office-structure so I started creating jobs for myself. Becoming a designer was one of them.
FM: How did the Diana Vreeland book and then the documentary idea come about at that time? How did your husband and the Vreeland family react to it?
LIV: It was around 2010 when the Vreeland book [The Eye Has to Travel] was launched. At the time we were living in Paris, I had just become a mother and was thinking, “Ok, I’m going to enjoy Paris but I can’t just sit and do nothing, I’m not that kind of person”. It was when I started working on the book that I realised that I wanted to make a film. I felt that a new book on Mrs Vreeland had not been done in years, so I began to work on it. I realized that I would have very good access to people throughout the research process and decided to simultaneously make a film.
The Vreeland men, my husband and Mrs Vreeland’s two sons, were very supportive throughout the process. I think they never realised that it would become such a success and revitalise Mrs Vreeland’s career and legacy. I was equally surprised.
The research is what I loved and I have always been very meticulous about it and enjoying the search for it; frankly, I think that’s really what brought me into filmmaking. I loved going through the process of discovering material, understanding how I can apply it in the film and I like gathering it all together and looking at the project as a whole. I am very particular about the way the material presented looks when it is on camera—I am incredibly anal about that but, at the same time, my aim for it is to look very cinematic so there’s another aspect to it. I feel that documentaries can be visually stimulating— beautiful—and, for me, it is important that they are. So, these are certain qualities that I aim for each time. Documentaries have started to become hotter and hotter: there are so many filmmakers out there right now and I am just a little entity in this whole world of so many people wanting to tell a story. Sometimes why my approach looks different is because it has a veneer to it that gives a very finished look, which is not a normal aspect in documentary films.
FM: This has to do with your subjects, too. They are all strongly linked with aesthetics… And now, your third documentary, Love Cecil, portrays again a man of high, if not the highest of aesthetics. Since Cecil Beaton and Diana Vreeland, what has changed in the ways we perceive beauty and how has the term evolved?
LIV: Well, I think both come from the same school of what they thought beauty was. In a funny way, these characters are so interlinked. Their sense of beauty is very much defined by the 20th century: it was a lifestyle, a general view of life rather than about objects and this is something very important to consider. There was a consciousness about the type of life that they pursued, of a certain standard and that certain standard evolved around the word beauty. You had, of course, these great characters of that time pursuing exactly the same thing… Think of someone like Jean Cocteau, for example.
FM: But why was their notion of beauty so powerful?
LIV: I think it is because it was unfiltered and encumbered by all the other things that we have today. We have so many things that can take away from the beauty of a single object or the beauty of a moment—there are so many distractions today.
I just finished a mini-documentary on Cocteau for my series Art of Style on M2M and, like the rest of them; he was not an easy person to live or to work with, yet he was a true intellectual. Look at his written work, his films, his art: everything he created was remarkably beautiful.
These characters had an awareness of each other and there was an intellectual and creative dialogue that was only based on the arts. They were also living at a time when the standard of living and quality of what they had was so much higher than today. I hate to be negative about that, but it’s the truth. Beaton sacrificed his whole to achieve beauty. He once told his friend Manolo Blahnik that the most important word in the dictionary was the word beauty. When I was looking at all the body of work, I could not believe what he had created.
FM: In all three films you have directed, plus the Art of Style series and your books, the visuals and aesthetics serve as perhaps the most engaging catalyst for the viewer. Where does your ability to understand and embrace aesthetics come from?
LIV: I hope that I can help educate the young generation with all of this material. Isn’t it wonderful that you can stream a movie and learn something from it? With my short series, The Art of Style, it is more about the creative process of the person in the film. It is a great challenge to be able to do it and I love working on creating this shorter content. I have been fortunate to have incredible access to everyone and to really be curious about every character. You also have to be passionate about what you are doing and I always am. All of this work takes a lot of time and research not only on my part but also for the interviewee. I really want to put my best foot forward to represent them properly. I feel that I have the luck of working with an amazing executive producer who trusts me, Susan Hootstein, who has really allowed me to curate this series. You have to remember: it’s all about teamwork.
I could never do my work without my team.
FM: How easy was it for you to peep into their lives in a way that does not insult their memory and how tempting is it to reveal an even more private secret when you come across it? For example, in the Vreeland documentary, her sons revealed how sometimes it was hard for them living with the larger-than-life personality of their mother…
LIV: You have to reveal some of their privacy: this is also what the audience wants, to see the human aspect of these characters. It is not necessarily always gossip that they want but it’s true: the more you reveal, the more the audience relates to the character, knowing that they perhaps have some of the same issues that we all have. In the case of Beaton, I think his biggest downfall was the fact that he was considered such a snob and it hurt the movie a little bit because people did not take him seriously enough. I took him very, very seriously, especially after going through his body of work. That’s what matters to me but we are not all like that. Although the film got good press there were two or three local reviews that said “he was such a snob” yet this was coming from somebody who already had that pre-conceived notion that they never liked him anyway, so it didn’t matter what kind of film I’d made. They couldn’t get around the fact that he was such a snob.
Mrs Vreeland’s husband had some affairs and that was something that I knew about. In her eyes, he was always the man of her life and she never had another relationship with a man after he died. So that was not her story; that was his story and that was a conscious choice that I made not to say much about it. If she had been the one having these affairs, I would have written about it, but it wasn’t the case.
FM: Yes, I see what you mean. Why are we so fascinated by other people’s lives, do you think?
LIV: We all sit there and read things and we always have this thirst to know, from our ancestors even. I think it is our need to learn more about someone. Or what you can learn from someone’s life and reflect it on your own and learn about yourself.
We are all attracted to gossip. Look at Instagram: this public space where people can know more about each other and perhaps talk about things that you would never mention before. I think the documentary as a film format gives a very creative interest in how a story is told but also the satisfaction of discovering the truth behind the name, the victories or failures, the love affairs…
FM: For all three of the characters you have chosen to document, their lives were very lonely, perhaps egocentric too, in the sense that their ambition did not allow any space for great relationships and yet everything they did involved others in some sort of a frame they would curate. What is your take on this?
LIV: All three of them were determined individuals. Their ability for reinvention is probably the reason I chose them; I feel a connection probably because I have reinvented my own life so many times. Vreeland was a society lady and she already had a certain lifestyle and most importantly, confidence. As she wrote in her childhood diary, “I want to be THAT girl.” And being “that girl” meant that she was going to make something out of her life. She used fashion to present a message really about living life fully and how to be passionate about it. Peggy came from a wealthy family so that was probably the biggest negative issue she had to deal with all her life simply because you can never really feel bad for her because she had money.
She never had happiness and was considered the ugly little duckling, pretty much like Vreeland, only Diana then chose to become something else.
The great thing about Peggy was her dream to make a great art collection. What is outstanding about her was that she wanted to share this collection with the world, unlike other collectors, such as Gertrude Stein or Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Beaton, on the other hand, was about his own singular vision, about creating, about being stuck in this middle-class family that he felt wasn’t quite good enough for him. At a young age, he took control of the situation and started taking society portraits of his two sisters and mother and sending them to newspapers to be published only to have their name recognized. It shows perhaps a notion of his desperation. He was always running after that idea of belonging in the upper class. The British upper class is so difficult to enter and once he did enter it he wanted to stay and frankly I think it is very much the same way even today.
Thankfully, he was talented at many things: it’s surprising what a great writer he was. I read all the books. Everything that came from him was very beautiful: the photography, the costumes, the set design, his illustrations but, unfortunately, he was really not a happy person. He did not live a full life because he never let that part of him go. He was always working to make money in order to maintain that lifestyle that he had and wanted to maintain.
FM: What was the most challenging part of making Love, Cecil? How did you decide the order in which you would tell your story, apart from its chronological order?
LIV: I always say that I don’t want to make a film that is chronological and I kind of end up doing it, which really upsets me because I don’t want it to be that way. Hopefully it will be different with Capote but I am not saying anything! Who knows how it’s going to turn out? We have so much visual material to choose from, so much to see: we have different parts of his life and frankly, we always run into the same problem when portraying these great personalities.
FM: And how did you make visual decisions?
LIV: In Love, Cecil I wanted to show iconic images but then I wanted to show all these other images. What is really nice for me is people who have known his work or those who have been part of the Beaton fan club were so thrilled to see the work that
I included; with most of it they were not familiar. I wanted it to look contemporary; the whole Bright Young Things era is so now, and I think we tried to make the film look as creative as he was.
We wanted to create visual texture to the film and we added colour washing and movement to the images—we were dealing with hundreds of black and white images. How do you make something like that more interesting visually? I think, in the end, we were able to pull that off. It seems that people like that the film looks this way.
FM: How difficult is it to fit such an enormous career into a 100-minute film?
LIV: You know, you just do it! You come across all of these great acquaintances, like when he met Sergei Diaghilev in Piazza San Marco when he was in his 20s for example. Sure, I would have loved to put this story in but do you know how many people have no idea who Diaghilev was? I would love to have put more about his sittings, getting to know more of his heroes and the reasons… That’s always one of the biggest challenges while trying to get into the essence of the character and what this person is doing. I felt, for example, that Ashcombe House was such an important part of his life; one should see his home. So we broke it down to chapters and, while shooting, I wanted to go back to that “green” feeling of Ashcombe, which was basically an isolated place in the countryside. Sometimes these ideas work and others simply don’t. I am trying something completely different with the Capote doc: I have a very precise idea and I think it will work.
FM: As you see it, what was Cecil Beaton’s real role in life? At some point in the film, according to Hamish Bowles, Beaton was essentially an outsider, striving to get in…
LIV: It is what I mentioned briefly before: this whole thing about the British class system. He was an outsider and he was welcomed in through aristocrat Steven Tennant who was part of the Bright Young Things and who officially gave Cecil his entrance to high society. But then also, The Queen of England chose him to photograph the Royal Family —something that helped define a more contemporary image of the Empire.
Deep down, I think he never felt like he belonged and that was one of his issues. It didn’t matter to him how successful he was, how much money he was making or how many friends he had. He just didn’t feel good in his own skin.
That was also his shortcoming with love: as he couldn’t feel good about himself, it was impossible for him to really engage with anyone sentimentally. It was sad at the end because he died alone.
FM: What is truly outstanding about him was the need to portray people in their most glorious versions, in the best way they could be. There was something rather mythical about the way he envisioned his subjects and life in general. Like Vreeland, he liked turning things into mythical testimonials.
LIV: He was in denial to see the world in any other way and what was nice about him was that he invited us in to see it through his own eyes. At the same time, living like that, you are not dealing with the truth and that’s the other side of it: not being realistic about life. This was something that covered up his own personal shortcomings.
FM: What was the most astonishing thing you came across during your research? How much did you know about him before you started this project?
LIV: I knew a lot about him but it never occurred to me that he was such a lonely person; this came to me as a surprise. Also how insecure he was!
It was very difficult to read his unpublished diaries that are held at Cambridge at St John’s, as I really didn’t understand his handwriting. It was impossible. So, I read all his published diaries instead and while doing so, it was clear this voice of being really alone surrounded him.
I also didn’t know anything about his brother who threw himself in front of a train and who was his father’s favourite son.
FM: In what ways are Diana Vreeland, Cecil Beaton and Peggy Guggenheim connected?
LIV: The most important is that they all have this sense of reinvention. They were all unstoppable creative forces and very much at the same speed. Vreeland and Beaton were very close friends and everybody in the family calls Cecil “Cecilia” because that’s how she referred to him back in the day. Peggy’s artistic world and crowd was not a part of Mrs Vreeland’s world as Beaton’s was, but I would say that indeed they are interconnected. Today they still are influential because of their achievements, yet it is really all about their sense of reinvention.
It was fundamental for all three of them.